Live by the media, die by the media

June 12, 2011

The proverb “live by the sword, die by the sword” (based on Matthew 26:52) is supposed to remind us that the way you choose to live your life has certain inherent risks.  In the unfortunate case of Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-NY, the proverb should read “live by the media, die by the media.

The story itself is the sort of tale the media loves: titillating, vacuous, and capable of filling endless air time with opinion and speculation. For that reason, the saga of Weiner’s electronic peccadillo is the sort of thing that I would normally choose to ignore.  However, before his demise Weiner was a media darling and it is the role of the media in his rise and fall that gives the tale proverbial significance.

The story itself is unimportant, and media commentators have strained to find some significance in it that would justify the scope of their coverage.  For example, manycommentators are calling the gossip about Weiner’s foolish conduct “Weinergate”, a reference to the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon administration.  That label is typically over dramatic and thoughtless.  Watergate had genuine political significance, involved dozens of conspirators that went to the very top of the government, and involved issues as profound as the continued operation of the Constitution of the United States.  The Weiner story involves nothing more significant than one shallow, power hungry man, who made a foolish mistake that exposed him for what he is.  Weiner was not a great legislator or political leader; he was simply a media savvy, political celebrity.

In early times, one gained political power by means of competitive achievements in fields (such as the military, business, or machine politics) that selected capable, if not necessarily, wise men.  However, in modern day America, the arena in which people compete for political power is the media.  Since the downfall of city political machines, the marginalizing of organized labor, and the rise of political action committees and PR firms, media attention (paid or unpaid) has become the primary means not only of winning an election, but of gaining the credibility to stand for public office.  Form always mattered more that it should.  Now form matters much more than substance.

For example, consider Sarah Palin, an undistinguished, half-term governor of an insignificant state.  She has accomplishments in no area except in winning media attention.  We are now in an era of government by media.  Unfortunately, government by media attracts to politics increasing numbers of people who are not only power hungry, but shallow. 

Weiner is a typical power hungry man.  Like Rep. Christopher Lee (R-N.Y) who resigned in February over a similar indiscrete electronic flirtation, Weiner is not simply a bad apple.  He is typical of people who go into politics, people driven primarily by their craving for status in the form of fame and power.  Weiner was simply playing at being a congressman.  Any arena of competition would have satisfied his power lust as well, but politics fell to hand.  

I suspect that for Weiner and other such men, political convictions are a distant secondary consideration.  Power hungry men want to put themselves at the head of some group (any group) of people.  They automatically convince themselves that they truly believe the things that they want other people in that group to think they believe.  Ambitious men like Weiner do not serve a cause; they simply attach themselves to a cause.

Of course, status seeking (even in the form of political ambition) is not a sin; it is a reproductive adaptation.  Throughout human and primate evolution, high status males were probably better able to win more mates and leave more offspring than low status males.  Consequently, we (males in particular) are descendant from those people who craved status most ravenously and got it most effectively.  Being a reproductive adaptation, it makes sense that status seeking should co-vary with the other main reproductive adaptation, lust.  Indeed we do find that high status males also tend to be the most lustful.  The list of examples would have to start as early as King Solomon and will probably not end with Rep. Weiner.  Far from being just a “bad apple”, the Congress is certainly full of such men.

Self selection practically guarantees that an exclusive club, like the U.S. Congress would be made up, not of idealistic do-gooders, but of status-hungry sex fiends.  Unfortunately, with status comes pride. They think they are gods, omniscient and omnipotent.  Worse still, law makers seem to have an understandable tendency to believe that they are beyond the law.  These side effects make congressmen high handed and careless.  It is not surprising that they tend to get caught.

What is surprising is the degree to which the main vehicle that these men ride to status is the media.  Because of the weakening of the party system, political contests (particularly primary elections) become not ideological but personal.  The Party cannot do much to help a congressman get re-elected.  The best thing he can do is to be a celebrity in his own right.  Only the media can give someone star power.  Consequently, these congressmen are unusually shallow publicity seekers.

Weiner, like Palin, was a reliable entertainment-news resource. He was flamboyant, solicitous of media attention, and helped journalists supply their media bosses with much needed entertaining broadcast minutes.  In short, at the height of his powers, Weiner was always a good story.  Unfortunately, that made his demise an even better story.  “Live by the media, die by the media” should be a warning, not only to other politicians, but to anyone interested in the quality of our legislators, and perhaps to the media itself.


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